Junzi on the Cross

Junzi on the Cross: A Discussion of Servant Leadership on the Dialectic Between the Son of the Ruler in Confucian Philosophy and the Son of Man in the Christian Worldview

This study’s objective was to develop leadership qualities within students in a Chinese university, through creating models of compromise between eastern and western philosophies, and then putting variable testing tools in place to observe whether changes took place. This research took place over two school terms, in which 36 leaders of small workgroups each term was examined. The aim of the research was to instill servant leadership principles into these leaders, and that through modeling they would instill those values into their group members. At the end of the research, while it has been proven that certain servant leadership have been instilled in student leaders, it is inconclusive whether or not those values have also been instilled into group members. However, student leaders did showcase humility and personal responsibility towards group members, two important qualities not normally present in Chinese leadership, but major qualities of traditional servant leadership.

This research began with the question: is it possible to raise servant leaders in China? China is well-known for being a country with authoritarian leadership. As early as the Zhou Dynasty (late B.C. 500) leadership in China was top-down, a society where each individual had their place written in Heaven as to role, responsibility, amount of land that could possibly be owned, to even salary. Today, there are studies being done to gauge the impact of servant leadership in China, but the majority of those studies are being conducted after-the-fact (see H. Yong’s study on servant leadership in the PRC). There are few studies being done today that are experiments of impact. This research is meant to remedy that injustice to some of the great leadership theories that are present in China’s vast history of philosophy and religion.

This research delves into the development of leadership agency in China (21, Chen); specifically leaders of student work groups in the college classroom who take charge of a team of students and create social programs which impact the local student population. This is a qualitative case study, but more importantly, it is exploratory research, to even see if there are viable paths for progression. I used an unstructured approach, as well as implemented an experimental method of instilling value into students which to my knowledge, has not been done before.

I also conducted a textual analysis of key texts in Confucian philosophy (the Analects) as and the Christian worldview (the Gospels) to compare the two leading philosophies/theologies from both eastern and western society. In order to conduct this research I selected outstanding students not of merit, but of leadership quality, which I shall refer to as pillars, as in Chinese philosophy a pillar is a person who stands out from the crowd in leadership quality (29, Sheh).


Leadership in China has traditionally been authoritarian, and to this day this style of leadership is prevalent in politics, business, even down to the family (193, Chen). Leadership is also extremely pragmatic, which says that regardless of the means, the end is the final goal (35, Rinehart). While this may be ethically unsound, this style of leadership does accomplish results. For the most part, Chinese government and Chinese business has remained paternalistic. In Chen and Lee’s book Leadership and Management in China, a group of researchers made an intense study on the peculiar aspects of paternalistic leadership, concluding that most Chinese leaders fall into a degree combination of three elements: authoritarianism  benevolence, and morality (176, Chen).

While many Chinese today do realize the importance of looking to other countries or cultures for guidance with leadership, many still accede to subordinate traditionality (181, Chen). Therefore, my premise for this research aims to change the paradigm of leadership by teaching the concept of servant leadership to Chinese students in the university, who are actively engaged in team building activities. While the concept of servant is somewhat present in traditional Chinese philosophy, far more comes from the words of Jesus himself in the Gospels, which has been watered down by Greenleaf (himself, a under-aggrandizing Quaker) to try and fit into a secular model anyone regardless of religion can adopt (27, Greenleaf). The goal of the research is to empower student pillars into a process of transformation (39, Rinehart); but in order to do that, I needed to take part in what Graen calls “the shared network leadership” model (289, Chen), which states that in order to successfully pass leadership principles into another culture, the transmitter must first understand the culture they are going to try and transform.

Research Topic

This study begins with the creation of leadership groups, but it goes beyond just creating situations for leadership. Conceptual leadership is the foundation of servant leadership (47, Greenleaf), because servant leadership deals not with issues of the hands but issues of the heart, deep passion and love for each person involved in the process. This foundation is the bedrock of all actions the leader makes (97, Rinehart), and were I modelling this leadership as a teacher from my own life, the foundation which stretch all the way to Jesus Christ, my own model for servant leadership. However, a key aspect of conceptual leadership is that it requires looking at both the forest and the trees, which in this case requires a careful analysis of operational power from a Chinese context. Whereas in the West operational power may rest on a leader’s positive qualities and past accomplishments, operational power (79, Greenleaf) in the East is focused on relationship and form. Therefore, I had to not only take this into account, but also move forward and begin to hand out responsibility in a way where the expectations matched the culture. This kind of delegation was absolutely essential to model for the pillars I intended to try and teach about servant leadership (52, Hayward).

I invoked the principle of primus inter pares (84, Greenleaf). In a college institution, there are no stakeholders involved in the process, and to find the archetypal trustee that Greenleaf describes as all servant leaders requiring to keep them accountable was impossible. Therefore, I became the trustee to each pillar, and we formed a relationship in that fashion. My goal was to help students form mental models to perceive leadership, while encouraging formation of relationship not only between myself and them, but between themselves and fellow team members. In this way the institution we set up was serving us (62, Greenleaf).

Target Group

Chinese leaders are natural at the art of self-cultivation. To cultivate the self is a means towards the self-evolution against instinctual desires and the movement towards wisdom and sagacity (61, Chen). Prime examples in Chinese history are the sage kings Yao and Shun, quoted often in the Analects of Confucius as pure examples of servant leaders. Other examples that are steeped in Chinese myth are the god-like Monkey King Sun Wukong, and his guide to human enlightenment, the sage-priest Sanzang, a reincarnated king in the body of a servant of Buddha. These stories serve as examples which many people who are concerned with leadership immediately think of; hence it is necessary to mention them.

One further aspect of the target group that needs be mentioned in the concept of harmony. Harmony is more popular today, due to the current President of China, Hu Jintao, having made the “harmonious society” a goal for his political tenure, although the concept has a much longer history in Chinese history than the 21st century. The saying of Confucius, “harmony is precious” has been used for thousands of years as a goal people in power should aspire (247, Chen). This is important to discuss because the pillars I chose to lead groups will often elect harmony over quality or task: if people in the group are not contributing to the work process, the leader will take it on him or herself to do the group rather than confronting that person about the issue.

Being top-tier students, they also desire achievement, as they are taught from a very young age that learning is more important than anything else (149, Sheh), except for money (which comes in a very close second). However, while achievement does occur high on the lists of goals for individuals, caring for members of the group does rate important as well (17, Chen).


As a Christian in an atheist country, I am in a unique position. Furthermore, the rejection of all religion, including Christianity, from having any place in government dialogue elevates my position as an educator in a top university for people who eventually go into either government or the social sector. While there are many Christians in China, there are many more non-Christians, some who ideologically refute the existence of any supernatural occurrences or even natural occurring acts of God. Part of what I am trying to teach these pillars of society is the concept of modeling, and by doing that myself I hope I can fill them with at least part of my philosophy and belief that serving others should be a naturally occurring phenomenon instead of something that is only guided my incentives (103, Rinehart).

I am also a foreign worker in a country that largely has remained ignorant of foreign concepts for the last 4,000 years (save for a brief period during the late 20th century until now, since they have been open). Therefore, the diversity of ideas that I offer the students as well as the depth of history that I carry with me (multiple cultural influences) can help in the process of modeling (38, Rinehart).

However, as a variable in this study, this information can only be useful if I am active in pursuing relationship with my elected pillars. I must be especially aware however, of the distinct historical imagination that already exists within my students; their ability to gauge the past and look towards the future is dependent on their perception of self-identity, if they can see a bigger picture, and if they consider the picture I offer to be of any value to them. Nevertheless, their historical imagination combined with mine, if put together would be highly beneficial to them as future leaders (9, Hayward).


To train servant leaders requires a different methodology than normal leaders. Where this research differs from other leadership training seminars is that all of the training I am doing will be hands-on, with in practical work groups doing meaningful projects which have the possibility of continuation past the end of the course. Students are given incentive in the form of grades rather than monetary promises or promotion, but due to the lack of a crisis situation (such as a training seminar or an actual crisis in the company) I have to personally help each pillars understand how they can best serve their group while maintaining distance and allowing them to discover the process on their own (68, Sheh). Not only do the pillars take charge of a group whom they have been told to serve, but they also embark on a community project which is focused primarily on social responsibility, something that comes naturally to most Chinese organizations and serves to place double-emphasis on the concept of servanthood (246, Chen)

There are four steps to the methodology of this project: (a) to analyze past efforts, (b) to set into motion a system which can be used both on-site and off-site in training leadership, (c) to carefully follow the variables throughout the two terms, and (d) follow through with the activities of the term and continue to promote leadership concepts throughout the semester.

Prior to this project, various activities had been subjected to students, including: a weekly leadership seminar, intended to train students in basic concepts; and electing class monitors in lieu of group leaders to maintain control of a class. However these two methods, both used in Fall and Spring of 2009 failed as engines of leadership; the class monitor found his or her job to be overwhelming, while the leadership elective remained as such: an optional elective for extra points, which few students considered important other than receiving a slightly higher score.


Students suffered from a lack of unity of purpose (100, Sheh) within work groups (having no leader), and monitors suffered from having insufficient execution power to set up systems of control, due to an overwhelming amount of work (23, Sheh). To deal with this issue student leaders were selected from student election, but often these leaders lacked both intution and willfulness, required abilities of servant leaders (37, Greenleaf, and 148, Hayward respectively).

When setting up a new system for guidance of pillars (servant leaders), I had first of all to put aside old notions of classroom management, and decide on a radical new approach. Personal communication on a weekly basis with leaders was required, as well as designing a system that promoted flexibility and impartiality towards all participants  The principle of impartiality states that all things have use, even if at first glance they do not seem so (87, Sheh). By acquiescing to this notion, facilitating a personality-based system (Myers-Briggs) for electing leadership was implemented, as I gave pillars far more opportunities to meet with me to discuss issues that occur on a weekly basis, from home meetings, weekly e-mails, personal phone calls, to even one-on-one leadership consultations. I opted for a flexible system, showing no partiality towards any student (such as a monitor) but allowed all to speak with me anytime (even at 9pm) without criticism. I hoped I was modeling basic values of servant leadership.

With the establishment of a system of accountability, setting roles and defining responsibility for group efforts, then focusing on analyzing specific variables: leaders, group response to the leader, and leader’s response to the “servant ethic” (209, Greenleaf), I hoped to forge a foundation of conceptual leadership the pillars would be able to take to the next level (47, Greenleaf).

Development of Original Model

The model developed for this research was composed of several aspects: (a) theoretical, (b) practical, and (c) intellectual.

In the theoretical model, I envisioned that servant leadership could be taught to students through a holistic lifestyle class, in which teaching was passed down through modeling as well as task. For example:

 original model (servant leadership)

Fig. 1

At first glance, the model above in Figure 1 seems like a fairly obvious concept for teaching a class. Concepts on servant leadership are delivered to the student via individual coaching sessions as well as through a weekly group task, which is individual according to each group member. For the leader of a group, he or she has a specific task which I will discuss shortly. The goal of this current model is to emulate holism, a concept that is deeply rooted in Chinese philosophy and which indicates that everything in the universe is inter-related and yet inter-dependent (83, Sheh).

As we can see from the model, the teaching is flexible and methods taught per week vary depending on the results and feedback from larger group projects, in which it is apparent whether or not servant leadership has been practiced or not. Servant leadership requires authenticity; otherwise it becomes nothing more than rote practice, but when coming from the heart, servant leadership has that amazing ability to bring people together as a team and function in the same heart (40, Rinehart).

The practical model used in this research deals with the individual group assignment given to each group or team pillar. At the beginning of the term the pillar must identify two qualities in each group member they will endeavor to work with an help improve, one strength and one weakness. In the following weeks, they must deliver to me a report on how they are progressing in helping that individual grow in that area. In this way, many team pillars have learned the art of submission, which is another quality that servant leaders possess: humility before others (10, Rinehart). For many pillars, this was the hardest element of their work, because of the abstract quality of the assignment and a fear to be seen in lower status than other group members; however due to the nature of upper leadership (myself, the teacher) they had litle recourse to deny the request, as strange as it may have sounded to them.

The final model used was the intellectual model. In this model, I would send e-mails to each pillar on a weekly basis instructing them in particular servant leadership concepts, beginning from the simple, and moving on every week to something more difficult. This model was taken from a paper Spears wrote in 1998, and illustrates many key elements of servant leadership that if applied to one’s paradigm, would greatly enhance abilities not only as a servant, but also as a leader.

servant leadership progression

Fig. 2

 From the beginning of the model (listening) begins the easiest of tasks: to learn how to listen instead of demand, to hear instead of tell. Each concept comes with specific rituals and routines the pillar must practice with his or her group members, finalizing in the concept of building community. By this point, the education portion of servant leadership has been completed, and the group may safety proceed with their projects and continue along the theoretical model to fruition. By using this model concepts such as vision and respect can be given to each pillar; whether or not they desire to utilize these models in their lives, however, is purely subjective.

The goal of this model was to create a practical model and basic set of theories on which servant leadership as a science could be based. In my studies on servant leadership, most of the research seemed bent towards learning to do goodwill to others: the Light side of leadership, wheras a writer like Robert Green, who wrote The 48 Laws of Power, would be the Dark side of leadership.

If we look into the foundations of servant leadership from both eastern and western philosophies, we find a very different source, and we can begin to build one final model.

In Confucian philosophy, servant leadership exists as form and pragmatism. For example, when Confucius says “Love your fellow men,” (217, Lin) he follows up later with, “It is harmful to make friends with three other types: the obsequious, the double-faced, and the smooth-tongued.” (291, Lin) The core concept of servant leadership from an eastern perspective is to give to others selflessly, either to be an example to other men, or to truly serve people without endangering yourself. “Why should that be?” Confucius asks, when his disciple inquires whether a man of honor (in Chinese, “junzi”) would jump into a well to save a drowning man. “A man of honor will try to rescue to man in the well, but he won’t jump in himself. He may be deceived, but he will not act foolishly.” (111, Lin) Therefore, if the man of honor (or “junzi”) could only rescue the man by drowning himself, he would refrain, as servanthood towards fellow men only extents as far as what is pragmatically allowed by one’s life. However, for the sake of ideals, the man of honor would gladly give up his life (269, Lin).

In the western perspective, servant leadership is founded on the principle of serving God with the whole heart, and modelling one’s life after Christ, who has modeled his life after his Father. The second concept that is widely spoken by Christ in the Gospels is the idea that “the humble shall be exalted, and the exalted shall be humbled,” (133, Cheney) a beautiful paradox and one which Christ repeats over and over again in a variety of different situations. The final concept that Christ repeats a number of times is to “love your neighbor as you would love yourself.” (157, Cheney) Whereas Confucius makes the statement, “Do not do to others what you do not wish others do to you.” (203, Lin)

From these two comparisons, we can begin to make a theory into a model for the Chinese leader. Whereas in eastern philosophy, serving others is dependent on form, pragmatism, and circumstance, western philosophy posits that serving others is about obeisance, humility, and selflessness. Eastern philosophy does contain selflessness, as Mencius states “the best practice of a leader is to help others do good,” (55, Sheh) but Mencius is still not willing to take that step outside of form and appear weak, whereas Christ says, “For he that is least among you all, he shall be great.” (107, Cheney) Now, to keep this from turning into a battle between philosophies, I will make some general observations and then develop a model useful in reaching eastern audiences with a western frame of mind.

When dealing with my Chinese pillars, I focused on teaching them to be humble, although I found that by doing so, many leaders felt that their position as leader was threatened and held little importance in the overall frame of group work. However, when these leaders took hold of the second concept: to take responsibility, and combine that with the authority which drafts and molds vision, suddenly the three concepts were congruent with each other. According to Figure 3, we can see that when eastern and western philosophy come together, if held together by responsibility and authority, the form is maintained and the sanctity of the pillar is maintained for all to see.

servant leadership keystone

Fig. 3

Few sensations are more painful than responsibility without power.” Churchill

Summary and Conclusions

My research was very idealistic. Much of the intended research which I have described in this paper did not actually happen, due to a number of factors. As a pilot study into whether or not servant leadership qualities can be instilled into Chinese students at the university level, I have concluded that they can be, but were not. I will first list the successes of this mission, and then list the reasons why certain aspects of this project failed.

Among student pillars, dogma prevailed. Greenleaf claims that without dogma, no activities within an organization can survive to fruition (117, Greenleaf). Pillars instrinsically understood the policies I set out for them and followed them as best they could, even when the assignment was incredibly abstract. The system was solid, and the educational model was easy to follow, even if they had to consult their friends about clarifications.

Benevolence was greatly practiced among student pillars. Benevolence is one of the key factors of Chinese leadership, be it servant leadership or not: it is to care for your followers in a holistic fashion, treating them as family and watching over their well-being (163, Chen). By creating groups that fostered friendship combined with task-oriented education, benevolence naturally blossomed in groups from pillars to participating group members. In some rare cases when the pillar was not present, instead of benevolence frustration became the driving incentive, but in most cases, pillars took very good care of their fellow colleagues.

Finally, because of the challenges students faced during the course of the semester, loyalty was highly prized among student pillars. For group members who participated fully in group acitivities, they were given the benefit of the doubt almost anytime they had to excuse themselves from work. Other students gladly covered for them.

I am glad to say that loyalty was a strong attribute of student pillars, as it is one of the prime requisities for servant leadership (123, Hayward), and the first step to acknowledging humility towards others. Finally, that humility many times expressed itself in the form of fluidity, in which leaders deign to make themselves invisible. This concept comes from Laozi, who stated, “Because in the end it does not claim greatness, its greatness is achieved.” (78, Sheh)

However, on the other hand, there were several factors that I failed to instill within my student pillars. First and foremost was calling, which is of utmost importance to a leader, but something which my student pillars could never have achieved due to being elected as leaders by me and not by themselves (300, Greenleaf). Greenleaf maintains servant leaders must be seekers, people who are constantly searching for turning points in which they can throw themselves as able servants (22, Greenleaf), which in the end is the ultimate qualification for taking initiative, a quality among servant leaders. Being elected takes away choice from any person, especially in the Chinese classroom, as being elected leave one without a choice to refuse the teacher.

I discovered that several of the pillars, while loyal and benevolent towards their group members, lied and cheated their way into either the good graces of their group members or into my own good graces, surprisingly. According to Hayward in his study on Winston Churchill (as well as both Sheh and Chen), moral character is a prime requirement for servant leaders, and in my course this concept failed to pass onto my student pillars. This is a glaring failure.

Finally, the last aspect of failure that I wish to mention is risk. Sheh comments that risk is a main factor in many Chinese businesses, but in my course, most leaders opted for the risk-less path until instructed not to do so by myself (150, Sheh). In the future, I hope to illuminate some of these principles through both modeling and direct teaching, before habits set in and form.

Evaluation and Recommendation

In evaluating the pillars, I used a variety of different methods. One method was through one-on-one interviews, in which I asked them a specific question about how they proceeded through the leadership process and they answered to the best of their ability. Another method I used was through a quantifiable survey, also known as scientific management (252, Chen), in which questions about team leadership were raised directly and they were asked to answer honesty. By the end of the evaluations, I discovered some striking things.

Firstly, that through the process of leading a group, these students gained in self-knowledge, although perhaps not in leadership ability. Many said that prior to the course they never saw themselves as leaders, but now after having gone through the process, they could tell that they were indeed gifted in certain areas of leadership. A very few said that the my calculations at the beginning of the class were improper, although they may have just been polite. Of course, the goal of any venture in leadership should not only be self-knowledge, but the knowledge of others (101, Sheh), at least in traditional Chinese philosophy.

My recommendations for future efforts include the following aspects: (a) instilling more of a concept of family among all students in a particular class, especially teaching pillars how to make their group members feel like they are a member of a special family (69, Hayward); teaching student pillars how to love selflessly, by eliciting basis responses of trust and responsibility from pillars to members (52, Greenleaf); using modeling to inspire student pillars, and asking them to inspire their own group members using the same methods (148, Sheh); and finally, implementing training and releasing policies, which will ensure leaders have the capacity to create leaders, so that the process can continue without end (148, Rinehart).


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On the following pages are the definitions of terms relating to this study on servant leadership:

R.K. Greenleaf Pg. S.T. Rinehart Pg. C.C. Chen Pg. S.W. Sheh Pg.
Awareness 42 Authenticity 40 Authoritarianism 193 Achievement 149
Calling 300 Diversity 38 Benevolence 163 Autonomy 90
Conceptual leadership 47 Empowerment 39 Control mechanisms 20 Execution power 23
Dogma 117 Equipping 133 Dialecticism 100 Flexibility 104
Institution 62 Foundation 97 Excellence 245 Fluidity 78
Intuition 37 Modeling 103 Golden mean 249 Holism 83
Love 52 Pragmatism 35 Harmony 247 Humane 46
Operational power 79 Releasing 148 Humanism 17 Impartiality 87
Primus inter pares 84 Submission 111 Leadership agency 21 Incentive 68
Seeker 22 Paternalistic leadership 176 Inspiration 148
Servant ethic 209 S.F. Hayward Pg. Scientific management 252 Organizational learning 110
Servant leader 27 Moral character 150 Self-cultivation 61 Paradox 81
Trustee 125 Delegation 52 Sharing leadership 289 Pillars 29
Design 91 Sincerity 243 Risk 150
Destiny 153 Social responsibility 246 Self-knowledge 101
C. Buckland Pg. Family 69 Subordinate traditionality 181 Selflessness 53
Coaching 44 Forgiveness 118 Talent 27
Enabling 38 Historical imagination 9 Unity of purpose 100
Faciliation 29 Intellect 34 Visionary 144
Responsibility 4 Loyalty 123
Transformation 36 Relationship 127
Shared vision 38 Respect 71
Willfulness 148